Buoyed by the success of its latest lunar probe, China is set to launch another mission to the moon at the end of this year to collect samples on the side closer to Earth and bring them home.
It also has plans to send a probe to Mars in 2020, following an unsuccessful attempt in 2011, as well as further lunar explorations, and will even contribute to co-building a research station on the moon with other nations, the country's space agency said yesterday.
The Chang'e 4 probe, named after the mythical moon goddess, made history when it landed on the unexplored far side of the moon on Jan 3 in a technical and risky manoeuvre.
Since then, the Chang'e 4 has gone to work, with its rover Jade Rabbit 2 rolling around on the lunar surface and sending home the first pictures of an unseen side of the moon. It is conducting topography surveys, temperature and mineral make-up of the moon's "dark side" and measuring cosmic radiation, the chief designer of China's lunar exploration programme, Mr Wu Weiren, told reporters yesterday.
The probe carried 13 scientific payloads, including four in collaboration with Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia.
China National Space Administration deputy head Wu Yanhua said the agency planned to send up Chang'e 5 around the end of the year and subsequently Chang'e 6, 7 and 8. No timeline was given.
The mission for Chang'e 6 will be to collect samples on the South Pole of the moon. Chang'e 7 will conduct a "comprehensive exploration of the Moon's Antarctic, including a comprehensive exploration mission on the topography, material composition and space environment of the moon", he added.
Chang'e 8 will test some "key technologies" on the moon, such as whether structures could be built using lunar soil and 3D printing".
"China, the US, Russia and countries from Europe are all studying whether to set up a research base or station on the moon," said Mr Wu Yanhua. "We are going to test some technologies via Chang'e 8 and do preliminary exploration for a joint moon research base in the future."
China's first space station was expected to be operational by 2022. He said China hoped for international collaboration on its construction and welcomed other nations to use it for scientific purposes.
Yesterday, he also said the space agency had exchanged information on Chang'e 4's mission with Nasa, its US counterpart, in what is believed to be a first since US lawmakers banned joint space activity with China on fears of cyber-spying.